Thursday, September 4, 2008

Managing Relationship Conflict

This is no easy subject. So much depends on the specifics of the situation and of the relationship. And perhaps different people deal with conflicts best in their own different ways.

But I think a few generalizations can be made:

1) Once anger has risen beyond a certain point -- and this point may vary, for different individuals, or for different situations -- there is no benefit to continued conversation. Anger is often a state of "outward flow", a state of action; an angry person may not be able or willing to listen or receive an "inward flow" of information or feedback. There needs to be a break, to cool down, after which if there are issues to discuss, both people will be able to hear each other better. Most issues of conflict are more fruitfully discussed when both parties are in a calm state.

2) If you are feeling unsafe, bullied, or subject to physical aggression, it is necessary to find a safe place as soon as possible. This may mean leaving physically. Or it may mean leaving the relationship. From the safe place, it will be necessary to carefully assess what to do next. It can be hard to think or plan clearly when you are in a dangerous position. You may need to seek external help, for shelter or safety.

2) Practicing empathy. While the capacity to empathize is to some degree an inborn, heritable trait, it is also a skill that can be practiced and improved. The simplest exercise is, in an argument, to simply state how you believe the other person is feeling, and why. We all have a powerful resistance to actually do this, even though most of us acknowledge that it's a good idea.

3) Apologizing. But only if you truly believe that you have been out of line.

4) Accepting apology. Which doesn't necessarily mean accepting a repetition of the status quo.

5) Be wary of the same old conflictual pattern happening over and over again.

6) If there is some positive territory, allowing some time and space for that. This could be shared interests, pleasures, activities, or mutual friends.

7) There are workbooks and other reading material which deal with relationships, managing or resolving conflict in marriages, etc. If this is a theme in your life, I strongly encourage you to acquaint yourself with this literature, and to work through a workbook or two (best if both you and your partner do it, of course). As with all self-help literature, you may find some of it preachy, trite, biased by the individual views of the author, etc. but I do think it is important to acquaint yourself with what is out there, some of it can be very helpful or at least an introduction to ideas that can help.

8) An external mediator, such as a therapist, can be helpful. It can often be important to find a mediator who does not have a specific individual alliance with either person in the conflict (i.e. the mediator should be neutral). And it can be important to find a mediator who is experienced working with relationship conflict. I believe it is important to consider that a mediator may help a relationship improve, but may also help an unhealthy or unsustainable relationship end more peacefully.

9) Maybe I should have "ranked" this item higher than (9) since it is very important: if there are untreated psychiatric symptoms in either individual member of a conflicted pair, then it can be very helpful to address and treat those symptoms. High levels of irritability can be treated with various types of psychotherapy, lifestyle change, and/or medication--with a reduction in an individual's irritability, that person may be able to negotiate conflict more peacefully and productively. In some depressive or anxious states, feedback which sounds critical in any way can lead to feelings which are so badly hurt that the conversation cannot continue. This emotional lability or hypersensitivity can also be treated through psychotherapy, lifestyle change, and/or medications.

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